Helping Indigenous artists and art thrive: The story of Skwachàys Lodge


In 2012, Skwachàys Lodge opened with a unique model of social enterprise: to find new ways to encourage, foster and promote Indigenous artists without the use of taxpayer money.


And they have truly been successful at this endeavour. Since their opening, 112 artists have come through their artist-in-residence program in all types of mediums.


Caroline Phelps, the guest experience and culture liaison lead for Skwachàys, says it has been a long and daunting task, but one that has been very rewarding.


“I don’t think anybody knew what we were getting into, how we were going to get this far,” Caroline says. “Because it’s been almost a decade since it’s been open. And a lot of the artists are pretty established since the beginning.”


Skwachàys Lodge is unique within the family of residences owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society. It is more than an artist-in-residence program; it is also a boutique hotel, with 18 rooms, and a gallery.


Collectively, the society has 21 buildings throughout Vancouver, comprised of single, family and social housing.


“There’s an elder building. There’s a youth building. There’s a bunch of family buildings and single buildings. [Skwachàys] is the only building with two social entities, the gallery and the hotel.”


Artists in Residence

The artist-in-residence program at Skwachàys Lodge has room for 24 artists when at full capacity. Artists come for either one- or three-year residencies, with the single-year programs being able to transition to the longer term.


Yaya Heit

As part of the covering of the costs for their housing, artists provide eight hours a month to Skwachàys Lodge, whether working in their gallery or other enterprises. They also are required to assist with various cultural events Skwachàys is a part of, such as National Indigenous Peoples Day, Orange Shirt Day and Métis Days.


“It builds the community within this building as well as it expands outside,” Caroline says.


Artists also provide the program facilitator with a personal development plan for their first six months. This is beneficial for both the artist and the program because much of the learning that takes place is self-directed or facilitated within the artist population of the program.


“Within the group that’s here, some of them are established in their own medium and will teach.”

Joshua Pawis-Steckley

One thing Caroline says that introduced is monthly sessions with a visiting elder to help artists deal with any personal issues and to provide mental, emotional and spiritual support.


“I think that’s really important and especially with this year, with the findings of the residential school children,” Caroline says. “And I think it’s a good idea to have an elder come in, or medicine person to come in to have a check-in once a month with the artists.”


Rebuilding and growing the program


Much like anything else, the artist-in-residence program at Skwachàys has had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Enrollments stopped in 2019 and many artists either completed their residencies or left for personal reasons.


Caroline is currently in the middle of selecting the first new applicants in over two years.


“They do have to provide either a biography or a portfolio and pictures of the items they do if they’re like painters or carvers. They do need to provide one of the three or all three.”


The artist-in-residence program accepts applications throughout the year. Skwachàys can be found at www.skwachays.com.





By Nathan Durec